WASHINGTON — The Obama administration took its first, tentative steps toward reform of the nation's housing finance system on Wednesday.
The Treasury and Department of Housing and Urban Development departments unveiled a list of seven broad questions for public comment ranging from whether the government should explicitly guarantee debt issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to the steps the administration should take to beef up consumer protections.
Over the past few months, the administration has gradually backed away from providing a near-term plan for Fannie and Freddie after missing a self-set February deadline. The administration is now aiming to have a plan sometime next year, and hopes this 60-day comment period will solicit input from market participants, academic experts and consumers.
The questions posed include ways the government could manage episodes of market stress, promote market discipline and provide incentives to encourage the appropriate alignment of risk between the government and the private sector. They also seek to examine ways that the housing finance system could be improved, either by preserving or in some cases eliminating certain aspects. It also called on participants to tackle capital market functions, mortgage origination and the challenges of transitioning into a new housing finance system.
In addition to collecting comments, the administration also said it would hold a series of "public forums" across the country on housing finance reform.
The future of housing finance and the GSEs is not addressed by the financial regulatory reform package being debated in Congress.
At a hearing Wednesday, an administration official noted that the housing market is still fragile.
"We must proceed very carefully to avoid undermining the stability that has been achieved," HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan testified before the House Financial Services Committee.
Republicans on the committee accused the Obama administration of stalling an already delayed effort to reform housing finance.
"We don't need polls, we need leadership," said Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama, the panel's highest-ranking Republican. "What is abundantly clear is that the Obama administration has no real plan for dealing with housing finance."
Democrats have rejected attempts by Republicans to unwind Fannie and Freddie before a new strategy is in place.
"We agree this system needs to be changed," said Committee Chairman Barney Frank. [But] "simply ending Fannie and Freddie with no ideas of a replacement would do damage in a time of economic difficulty."
Frank said he plans to start working on GSE-related legislation "very soon."
Wednesday's was the second hearing that the Massachusetts Democrat has called on GSE reform. In late March, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner appeared before the committee, and broadly endorsed some kind of government role in the housing market. Yet he appeared uncertain about how expansive it should be.
In September 2008, the government seized Fannie and Freddie and kept them afloat with $127 billion in federal aid. Reversing its original position, the Obama administration pledged late last year to cover unlimited losses through 2012 for the enterprises, removing the earlier cap of $400 billion.
Donovan said maintaining liquidity and the ability of GSEs to issue corporate debt securities during the transition would remain key priorities. But, he said, the government's role in housing finance "must change" with a stronger push for private capital to return to the market.
"The substantial direct support for the housing markets that has been put in place will be allowed to fade as the market recovers and fully stabilizes — and we have taken initial steps to prepare for this," according to Donovan's prepared testimony.
He also made the case to lawmakers that it was poor decision-making by executives at Fannie and Freddie — fearful of losing market share — that led to the demise of both institutions, not the government's affordable housing goals.
Donovan said old-fashioned greed caused both firms to relax their standards.
"If there had been effective limits on the GSEs — what they would buy, the types of products they could buy — we would have avoided the problems that we saw," Donovan told reporters.
Executives' assertions that they were forced to buy subprime loans to meet housing goals are bogus, Donovan said. "Safer products were available to be bought," he said. "Unless there were no safe products to buy, could you claim they were forced to buy those subprime loans in order to meet those goals?"